Philippe Odouard (H.77)
In Supersonic Stealth mode
Sydney. Philippe received us in Quickstep offices in an industrial area of Sydney. In the factory nearby, Quickstep produces high technology fiber carbone parts for military and commercial aircrafts and cars, including the famous F35 Joint Strike Fighter. However technical this might look, Philippe’s story taught us that industry is all about closing deals and managing people.
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Philippe! Thanks you for welcoming us at Quickstep’s offices. As usual we will start with a Chinese portrait. So if you were… a color?
HU: An animal?
PO: A horse (laughs)
HU: A dish?
PO: Canard à l’orange.
HU: A song?
PO: Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
HU: A movie?
HU: A sin?
HU: An object?
PO: An aircraft.
HU: A book?
PO: A book by Balzac.
HU: A hero or a superhero?
PO: De Gaulle.
“The problem you have in your career is that the more you grow in a large organization the less fun it becomes. You may make a lot more money but you have a lot less fun, you don’t make as much of a difference. As you get older you really want to put your print somewhere”
HU: Thanks! Now, could you try and sum up your professional background in just 30 seconds?
PO: HEC 77, I specialized in my career in large contracts with public administrations or large organizations. I spent 33 years in Australia, taking up different roles in companies such as Sagem, Thales and more recently into a start-up called Quickstep. Quickstep is very technology driven, just like my other jobs actually.
HU: How could you explain what Quickstep is doing to a 5-year-old kid?
PO: We develop and use technologies that make very light parts for fast aircraft and fast cars.
HU: After working in big corporations, why did you chose to join a smaller organization?
PO: The problem you have in your career is that the more you grow in a large organization the less fun it becomes. You may make a lot more money but you have a lot less fun, you don’t make as much of a difference. As you get older you really want to put your print somewhere. Start-ups are very good for that because you do it on your own. The only problem is that it is very risky but if you succeed it is a great filling. So the question is: how to find the right project? And you have to find a project you believe in 500% otherwise you are never going to succeed. So that’s how I got to Quickstep, it had a good invention, interesting technologies, something that was likely to succeed but with everything to be done.
“[As an HEC] your competition within technology companies tend to be very limited because most of engineers understand poorly what business is about”
HU: What is Quickstep’s history?
PO: When I joined the company it had just a few patents on a new manufacturing process and no turnover. The job was to develop the technology on one side and to win contracts and commercialize the technology on the other side. Plus the financial challenge of raising money to carry out our projects. Instead of rolling out our technology directly we had a step by step approach to get to our market. First we tried to make aircraft parts using traditional technologies. We won very substantial contracts with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, NBA systems on the F-35 joint strike fighter. It is an aircraft which will be manufactured in 3300 copies, it is the largest defense contract in the world at the present time. Then we set up the factory that you can see here and gradually started production. We won a second large contract, we are doing the flaps for the C130. So we gradually raised the turnover from 0 to 50 millions as we stand today. In parallel we continue to develop the technology and win smaller contracts with the new technology, like the contract we have with Thales for producing the bonnet of a vehicle. We are more and more working with the car industry as well as with aerospace which are the main areas we focus on. We started with 20 employees and now have 170, we are cash flow positive and we have raised 60 million dollars on the market in the past seven years.
HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?
PO: You create something from nothing, you create a team, a product, something different and that is successful. It is a very exciting thing. At the end of the day I didn’t do anything new, I used every minute of the experience I have had in the last 30 years. Because it is all about international business, technology and the skills you need in marketing, finance, production, research etc are the same.
HU: Why did you specify on technical products and international business?
PO: It is very unusual for a HEC. I have always liked technologies and I hesitated to do an engineering school when I was young. I ended up working in technologies from the very beginning of my career. The interesting thing is that your competition within technology companies tend to be very limited because most of engineers understand poorly what business is about. As the matter of fact they are not very good at making a business successful and making money. You are the only one that can understand the technology on one side but also propose business solutions, that’s powerful, but it is also difficult because you have to push your opinions through people who don’t understand them.
“If you have a position of responsibility in an organization you are in selling mode all the time”
HU: What are your daily tasks?
PO: By definition a CEO does everything (laughs), or he does nothing depending on how you look at it. You tend to work mostly where the problems are, and they might come from anywhere. A lot of it is actually finding a team, motivating it, making sure that they deliver what needs to be delivered and helping them to fix the bits that don’t work. So one day it may be finding money on the market, the next day a machine doesn’t work and you have to find a solution, the day after is about convincing a client to buy a product or that the problem you have is not worth breaking the contract… It varies. And the next day you have a staff problem and someone that is key to the company wants to leave and you try and convince him to stay. At the end of the day you are trying to sell something most of the time. This is how HEC is very different from engineering schools. If you have a position of responsibility in an organization you are in selling mode all the time. With your staff, with your clients, with your stake holders etc. Being the boss you have to convince all these people that what you do, what the company does, what the team does is the right thing.
HU: Can you tell us more about the strategy of Quickstep, what are your objectives and what is your dream for the company in the next ten years?
PO: As I said before, over the years it has been graduate introduction of new technologies. We are working in an area where investments are huge. A new aircraft is ten years of work and billions of dollars of investment. New cars, same thing. So you don’t convince people to change easily and new technologies take a lot of time to get accepted. So you try and do it a step at a time and the more maturity the technology has, the more maturity the company has, the more demanding you can be towards your own technology and start making bigger parts that are more lucrative.
The ambition of the inventor of this technology was to do an aircraft fuselage in one shot thanks to a sort of 3D printing for carbon fibre concept. Great. Theoretically it is possible. The idea is great but there is a long way down the road before you have the credibility and experience to sell it. You can start with very ambitious goals you still need to be realistic on what needs to be done to get there. People are very risk averse, they don’t bet on you very easily and you have to be careful of the speed at which you want to go. In software you can be successful very quickly but it is not the case in industry and certainly not in the type of business we are in.
HU: Is Australia a friendly country for industrial companies?
PO: Australia is a very good country. It is business friendly, you don’t have as many regulatory limitations as you have in France. Still it is reasonably regulated as a first world country but it is much easier to cope with than in France. Now, doing business worldwide out of Australia was a real issue 30 years ago. Not anymore. My main clients are in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Manchester, they are all over the world. With e-mails you have instant access to anyone, phone calls are virtually free. If you don’t like aircrafts and flying, don’t come to Australia because you will take many of them. Otherwise you are never farther than 12 to 20 hours from anywhere on the planet so it is not that bad. Working with Australians is quite interesting. They have a lesser emphasis on outcome than on process. They are very professional and they work hard if you know how to motivate them – just like everywhere else probably – and they are very friendly. Plus I have never had any trouble finding someone with the skill I needed in Australia.
HU: Let’s talk about Australia now. Why did you come to Sydney in the first place?
PO: I was sent here as an expatriate by Sagem. It was originally for a 3 year contract, but I am still here !
HU: What do you like to do on Sunday afternoons?
PO: I live next to the sea so I don’t need to take my car and go through traffic jam on Friday and Sunday nights to go to a country house out of Paris. I can enjoy the harbor and go swimming from home. I sail a lot, I have a sailing boat. It is not Paris – la Trinité in six hours but my home to my boat in 5mn walk. And it is 365 days a year, the weather is sufficiently good even in the middle of the winter. It is a very nice city to live in.
HU: Imagine you only have 24 hours to live in Sydney. What would you do?
PO: I live in a very nice house with a beautiful harbor view so I would stay home for 24 hours. It would be nice.
HU: What are your favorite places in Sydney?
PO: Quite a few very nice restaurants. You can find cuisine from anywhere in the world in Sydney. A good restaurant would be one activity. I would have another sail on the harbor, this kind of thing. The Australian way of life is very relaxed: you have a bit of wine with some friends, it is very casual and very friendly. It makes life so much easier. Frankly, why would I live in 24 hours?
HU: We have heard that Sydney is a very particular place in Australia. Are people in Sydney different from other Australians?
PO: Not really. When I arrived there was a big fight between Sydney and Melbourne but it is not the case anymore. On the contrary, when you fly from Sydney to Perth, you fly for 5 hours and the landscape and the people barely change! Obviously, each city has its own identity, but the Australian identity is very similar throughout the continent, much more than in Europe or even in the US. Take someone from Texas, California or from New York: they are going to be very different. Whereas people from Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne are not going to be that different.
“[In Australia] You don’t have as many socio-economical barriers that you have in Europe and in the U.S, people are very accepting of differences and that is a very nice feature”
HU: So what do you like about Australian people?
PO: The interesting thing about Australian is that they are all migrants. Most of them would be first or second generation migrants so they understand that you can come from somewhere else and they would accept it very readily because they from abroad themselves. It is a very open society. You don’t have as many socio-economical barriers that you have in Europe and in the U.S, people are very accepting of differences and that is a very nice feature.
HU: You are now Australian. When did you acquire the Australian citizenship?
PO: I got my permanent residence permit 5 years after I arrived. It takes another 3 or 4 years to get the passeport. So it was more than 20 years ago. It is not that easy to get but at the end of the day Australia is quite welcoming for people with a good level of education and an occupation in life. If you are an entrepreneur for instance you would get a visa really easily.
HU: Do you feel like a real Australian?
PO: I still feel very French, there is no doubt about that. But I also feel very at home in Australia. So I guess I feel really like a bit of both.
HU: According to you, what is Australia’s main challenge today?
PO: I think Australia’s main challenge is to diversify from their traditional business which is extraction of raw material. Coal, Iron ore, oil and gas, agricultural products: they are the main drivers of Australian economy and all of them are raw materials. They need to get into transformation of these materials and they have great difficulties to get there. There is no lack of ideas or entrepreneurship spirit, they have tons of great ideas, but they lack the capacity of selling these ideas to the world. I think the present government is doing well in that sense. The prime minister is an ex businessman and he is pushing many initiatives to develop projects that go beyond Australia’s traditional primary industries. The level of education is extremely high so people are very adaptable. The challenge is finding the right areas you wish to diversify into.
HU: France has just won a contract to build 12 submarines for the Australian navy. As a defense industry player, what do you think about this achievement?
-> More about this on theguardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/apr/26/france-to-build-australias-new-submarine-fleet-as-50bn-contract-awarded
PO: I am very aware of the contract because we have been working with DCNS [French submarine manufacturing company] and I have been involved in submarines in the past. I worked on the sonar of the previous generation of submarines. It is the first time France has managed to sell a major project for a very long time. I have been involved with DCNS on a number of projects in the past 25 years and they have not been up to scratch. This time they did a really good job. They looked at all the issues, addressed them properly and the result is there: 12 submarines means continuous construction of submarines almost undefinitely. If there is only one contract you want to win this is the one. The last time France was successful in a massive contract in Australia was 40 years ago with the Mirages. That is a great success. I wish good luck to them and good luck to Australia. I think Australia made the right choice, they will get very interesting jobs and technology and will probably contribute back to France and DCNS. I think the partnership is very promising.
HU: Why did France manage to make a difference on that particular contract? Are there any political or geopolitical issues at stakes?
PO: Most of the time French are very good at engineering and France is a major submarine country too. We are one of the few serious people with serious submarines in the world. Therefore the product is very credible. Lately the relation between France and Australia has been aligned on the relation between France and the U.S. The latter was very poor for a very long time. We had various pain points: nuclear tests in the pacific, the Rainbow Warrior bombing. And then we started attacking the American on their position in the Gulf. So the political relationship has been very bad for a long time. This has been mended and the relation is now good enough to carry out this kind of program. France played the right card as well offering operational support to the Australian navy. It is a very credible operational support as France navy is a specialist in this area, that counted a lot against the German and the Japanese. And then France proposed a lot of technology transfer, which is exactly what the prime minister wants, all the more as France has the best technology by far.
France has also used its good track record in technology transfer with Australia. The sonar technology transfer between France and Australia that took place 25 years ago has continued to work. The relationship has been extremely good to such extent that the transfer actually went both ways, French are using some Australian technology on their submarines.
So DCNS managed to play its card in the proper timing and profited by the good track record of what has been done in the past. Plus good political prospects in terms of cooperation for the future. That was a winning hand, and they won!
HU: We have a very naïve question: what will a country like Australia do with 12 submarines?
PO: Submarines are typically a deterrent. They are not there to be used that much, a little bit like nuclear weapons. Australia is an island, so if you want to take the wealth of Australia – typically minerals – you would have to invade by the sea and use big ships to transport the minerals. Submarines will prevent any ships from coming in our out the country without the government letting them. That fleet of submarine aims at deterring anyone to invade the continent, in a nutshell.
Why 12 submarines whereas there were only 6 before? Because they are a lot more submarines in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific. India, Pakistan and China are getting more and more of those. That’s why Australia needs more to defend itself.
“The average – don’t tell anyone from HEC – people in there is a good notch above the average in any university. It is very challenging and interesting in terms of conversations and relationships you can have. Don’t get “la grosse tête” but I think it is interesting to be able to rub shoulders with some of the best guys around the place.”
HU: Let’s talk a bit about HEC now. What was your favorite place on the HEC campus?
PO: I can’t remember (laughs)! I am a parisien so I lived on campus but I didn’t stay for weekends. I don’t think I have such a good memory of my time at HEC to be frank. I don’t think I made many friends there. I had friends at HEC but I knew them before. So this answer is hard to answer, I don’t have a vivid memory, it was 40 years ago!
HU: Why did you not like at HEC?
PO: It is not that I don’t have good memories. It was very relaxed three years frankly. I had plenty of time to do other things, which I appreciated and I used this time extensively. But I have a lot better memory from my years in “classes préparatoires”. Although it was hell on a day to day basis, because the work was so hard. But as we worked hard and played hard there was no dull moment at any time and I made some very good friends. My life when I was at HEC was actually outside of HEC. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t happy to get in, of course I was, and everyone would be. But for me HEC was not a life in itself, it was a mean to allow me to do other things.
HU: What is your best memory from HEC?
PO: When I saw my name on the door saying that I got in! That was a bit unexpected because I got in after only one year of prépa. I was “admissible” only at HEC and not at any other business school and I was admitted. I was just “woaw”.
“If you want to do something make sure you have the right base rather than try and fly with the eagles too early. Investment bankers and management consultant tend to push you in that direction too fast and I don’t think it is a good thing. You do some very interesting work very young but then what?”
HU: How did HEC help you in your career?
PO: I think HEC should push a bit more in term of its image. My son did a business degree at the university of Sydney and they had exchange programs with France: either Sciences-Po or HEC. Everyone wanted Sciences-po because it is better known… No one knew about HEC, what it was all about, and of course my son chose HEC! That is also the first time I went back to the campus after 35 years, when I took him there for a three months exchange. That was 3 or 4 years ago and the campus was very similar to what I knew. There was many more buildings but it still had the same “in the forest” atmosphere.
HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC today?
PO: Absolutely. I see it now from my son’s perspective. He actually made a lot of very good friends there. You rub shoulders with really clever guys. The average – don’t tell anyone from HEC – people in there is a good notch above the average in any university. It is very challenging and interesting in terms of conversations and relationships you can have. Don’t get “la grosse tête” but I think it is interesting to be able to rub shoulders with some of the best guys around the place. You probably don’t have that sensation when you are at HEC but the reality is that is very much the case. The university of Sydney may well be the best university in New South Wales but they have 10 or 15 thousands people every year and you don’t have that concentration of well made brains in a very small campus.
HU: What would you advise to a young HEC graduate?
PO: Don’t try and go too fast. It is a big tendency nowadays, getting into management consulting and advise people who are 30 years older than you are and tell them what they should do: this is not that easy. Learn the ropes of what you want to do and accept to roll your sleeves for four or five years and get to the dirty work. If you don’t do it you won’t really get the skills that you will use for the rest of your life when you get to higher positions. If you want to do something make sure you have the right base rather than try and fly with the eagles too early. Investment bankers and management consultant tend to push you in that direction too fast and I don’t think it is a good thing. You do some very interesting work very young but then what? That is the question you should ask yourself. That being said, I nearly went to banking but my father said: “look, you come from that great school. Do 2 years of commercial work, sell stuff, because selling stuff is what you are going to do for the rest of your life. So if you are good at it to start with you can go anywhere.” And he was right. So if I can give advice to you guys, that is something you should do. To be able to convince people of your ideas, of the products you have to offer is something that you will use all your life, whatever business you are in. That is something you need to do early in your career, it is not something that you can pick-up after twenty years.
HU: HEC’s motto is “the more you know, the more you dare”. What would be your own motto?
PO: I like this motto! It was mine for quite some time. Make sure you have the right background before you go for what you want to do. Actually, at the end of the day, go for what you want to do, you will never be happy, you will never be able to spend 15 hours a day working, that is clear. But if you do something you like you will never have the impression you work. You will just make money having fun!
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